Orbiting Dicta

Seventeenth Sunday of the Year: The Price of Pearls

Ordinary U.S. citizens are not very good at saving money, as has been too clearly shown in the dire straits many find themselves in during the economic lockdown of the “Covid-19 Crisis.” Small businesses and even large ones have similar problems. Rainy-day funds seem to have been virtually non existent in the spend-thrift world of the new millennium, and the U.S. is not alone in this lapse in what the ancients called “frugality.” That is not to say there is no surfeit of money in a world where five families control half the wealth of the entire planet and in the U.S. most of the wealth is locked the accounts of the one-percent-of-one-percenters. It might seem strange to find Jesus praising the merchant who found a pearl of great value and sacrificed his entire wealth to buy it.

As St. Thomas Aquinas insisted in the thirteenth century, accumulating money for its own sake is morally wrong – the vice of miserliness or avarice. Money in his view (and for much of the world for next three centuries) is a medium of exchange, a means not an end in itself, not something of value in its own right. Accordingly, like usury (charging interest on a loan) hoarding wealth was equivalent to a sin against the nature of things.

That is not to say that Thomas was against wealth, or even the accumulation of wealth, for that enabled people to thrive in times of need and should be shared out of justice and charity. (It’s worth noting that the word “thrift” comes from “thrive.”) and there was plenty of biblical precedent for that. (For Thomas on all this, see Summa Theologiae, II-II, QQ 77-78 and II-II, Q.118.)

All this changed with the development of capitalism and the money-economies of the modern world, whether for good or ill or some uneasy combination of both. The bottom line at the moment seems to be that there is gross inequity in the distribution of the world’s wealth on a global scale, a crime against humanity made all too visible by the current crisis.

So what are we to make of today’s readings? King Solomon is presented to us in the first reading as a young man who chose wisely in the sight of God, because he

1 Kgs 3:5,7-12
Ps 119
Rom 8:28-30
Mt 13: 44-52

chose to be wise when he could have simply gained wealth, power, and fame. He dreamed of God, and God’s dream for him was granted. His own dream was not to accumulate gold, but to build a great Temple for God, and he succeeded, creating in the process one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was destroyed in time, but the wisdom of Solomon the King outshone it and lasted far longer because he looked first to God’s glory rather than his own.

St. Paul reminds us that our destiny lies first of all in the hands of God, and that those who love God, who strive to live in accord with God’s plan for the universe, will find that their lives have value and significance, like the stones and columns that supported Solomon’s Temple, no matter how humble or obscure they may appear. Like those who sacrifice their time, energy, savings, even their own health and often their lives to care for those suffering during the present pandemic, we may also be called on to give our meager fortunes and even our lives rather than contribute to the darkness that disfigures the world. In the sight of God, such sacrifices are precious and shine eternally like the stars themselves. Most of us are more likely to find ourselves assisting ordinary people in extraordinary situations who are desperate for help. But those in powerful positions and possessing great wealth who can do much to ward off even greater harm have a special obligation to step forward.

And that is what we learn about from Jesus’ little parable of the pearl. Pearls themselves were unknown until a few centuries before his time, when they were discovered in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Soon they were all the rage among kings and emperors, especially the Romans. You might even recall the story of how Cleopatra showed off by dissolving pearls in vinegar and drinking them as a cocktail. A single, perfect pearl could cost as much as an ordinary person could earn in a lifetime.

What we know that the ancients didn’t is that a pearl grows within an oyster because of a tiny irritation in the most sensitive area of its body. The oyster surrounds the grain of sand with its tears, as my friend Megan McKenna has so well said. After many years, those tears formed a smooth, protective shell around that irritant. We value it for its perfect beauty. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven grows from the tears of ordinary people.

In any case, Jesus tells us that is how we should consider God’s reign, as a treasure worth sacrificing everything for. Stumbling across the gospel of Christ in a hospital ward, a refugee prison camp, or a mother’s hopeful care for her children, is like finding a treasure chest hidden in a field. Sell everything and buy that field, Jesus tells us, buy that pearl and God’s treasure will be yours.